It is commonplace these days to hear the word “karma” used in popular parlance. Broadly speaking, karma could be translated as, “as you sow, so shall you reap” and this is how it is usually understood and used by Christians. The word karma, in a popular context, underscores the idea that there is a universal law at work, that we do live in a just world and no action (or thought) is exempt from consequences. Many surveys also show that an increasing percentage of Americans believe in karma and its corollary, reincarnation.
But how genuine is this understanding of these notions that play a central role in dharma? A deeper understanding of karma and reincarnation within Dharmic traditions reveals that these notions are at odds with the most fundamental assumptions of Christianity. Failing to understand the meaning of karma in the Indian context, presumes, mistakenly, that Judeo-Christian and Dharmic worldviews are one and the same. They are not and it is this and other differences that I explicate in my book.
In Christianity, justice, while it may be approximated on earth, is finally accomplished on the “Day of Judgment” when each person is held accountable for all his actions and assigned permanently to either Heaven or Hell. This is to occur at the culmination of an apocalyptic struggle known as the “End Times”. In Dharma, in contrast, time isn’t finite but infinite; hence the very notion of the end of time is meaningless. After this universe ends there will emerge another, just as prior to this universe there was another. The series of universes is without beginning or end. There will be no one final day of universal judgment.
Rather, karma is a perpetual cosmic system in which consequences of all actions follow as effects. Unlike the Christian notion of a perpetual Hell or eternal life in Heaven, in Hinduism, such celestial stays in svarga (heaven) and naraka (hell), respectively, are always temporary, in proportion to accumulated karma. They are always followed by rebirth to experience the fruits – negative or positive – of previous actions. Karma thus makes reincarnation important and necessary. Whereas in Christianity, the time span for outcomes is limited to one life, in Indian thought the cycle of causation extends across multiple lives.
Unlike the Christian concept of Original Sin, karma theory posits that it is only our own individual past actions (from both past lives and the current one) for which one must bear consequences. TheChristian belief in Original Sin – that all human beings, as progeny of Adam and Eve, partake of their sin, runs contrary to the Hindu understanding of the cosmos. For Hindus, karma is non-transferable. It cannot be accrued due to the actions of someone else such as Adam and Eve. Karma, unlike sin, is not a sexually transmitted condition. Adam and Eve’s sins would therefore, in the Hindu worldview, accrue only to Adam and Eve and not to all humanity.
More importantly, karma theory holds that human beings have the agency for their own liberation, the means to break their karmic bonds entirely by their own spiritual practices. They do not necessarily need to believe in divine intervention. Hence, regardless of the stature of Krishna, Shiva or Buddha, it is possible to be a good Hindu or Buddhist and to achieve liberation from the cycles of birth and death, without having heard of them as long as one lives in accordance with Dharma.
Dharma as I’ve pointed out in other blogs, has the Sanskrit root dhri, which means “that which upholds” or “that without which nothing can stand” and encompasses the natural, innate behavior of things, duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc. Since the essence of humanity is divinity, it is possible for man to know his dharma through direct experience without any external intervention or knowledge of saints, prophets or a church-like institution. A dharmic person is broadly one who performs his actions righteously and this is sufficient to lead humans to the divine. There is the grace of God in these traditions, but is not essential in the Christian sense of a historical mediation, because each of us is inherently divine already.
In Christianity, salvation and forgiveness from Original Sin is possible only through the unique historical act of God. The only Son of God, Jesus, is exempt from Original Sin because his Virgin Birth makes him not a progeny of Adam and Eve; only he can bring salvation to human beings. The intervention of the divine as flesh in the form of Jesus and his subsequent crucifixion and resurrection are essential for salvation. Here again, Christian belief collides with karma theory.
On the other hand, according to karma, the “phala” or fruit of one’s actions must be experienced by the doer of those actions in this or a future birth. Moreover, phala cannot precede karma but must follow it. Since phala can neither be used retroactively nor deposited as collateral against future sins, Jesus’ suffering could not either erase past sins of men nor the future ones of those not even born.
My hope in discussing these differences candidly is that once laid bare, they become the basis for more fruitful and effective interfaith discussions on a level playing field.
Author: Rajiv Malhotra